Few people who’ve encountered him are indifferent to Mark Rhoades, whose departure was announced this week by city Planning and Development Director Dan Marks.
He becomes the third senior city staffer to resign in recent weeks, following the departures of Transportation Manager Peter Hillier and Housing Director Steve Barton. His resignation becomes effective Aug. 10.
Praised by Marks as a passionate and dedicated planner and hailed by developer Evan McDonald as “a good planner” who “will be sorely missed,” Rhoades had equally vocal critics.
To Art Goldberg, he was a “duplicitous insect,” a dubious honorific Rhoades has been known to joke about, and neighborhood activist Sharon Hudson responded to the announcement with “Oh great, and when does the party start?”
“We will really miss his institutional knowledge, his passion about Berkeley and his passion about planning,” said Marks.
A sometimes controversial figure who has clashed with neighborhood activists over large-scale development projects, Rhoades has spent nearly a decade on city staff and had just received a 10 percent pay boost.
As of July 1, Rhoades was drawing an annual salary of $133,308, according to David W. Hodgkins, the city’s Director of Human Resources.
Rhoades combined both the current and zoning aspects of the planning department along with future planning, uniting two previous positions. Marks said he didn’t know if a new employee would fill both roles.
Though he’d known about the departure for several days, Planning Director Dan Marks said the news had come as a shock.
In his letter to city staff, Marks said Rhoades said “he came to this decision with great difficulty after concluding that he needed to pursue employment opportunities that allowed him to spend more time with his young family.”
Rhoades took leave after the recent birth of his second child, and since his return, the planner has talked frequently about his family and their importance to him.
While Marks said he couldn’t confirm a report spreading along the city grapevine that Rhoades would be working on projects with developer Ali Kashani, the developer said, “Mark is talking to several people about his options and talking to me.”
A photographer of flowers and a budding connoisseur of wines—with the help of sometimes adversary and Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman—Berkeley’s departing Planning Manager is also a self-described “change agent.”
It was Goldberg who characterized Rhoades as “the duplicitous insect who runs the Zoning Department (a subdivision of planning) and who specializes in keeping neighbors in the dark” in a June 6, 2003 letter to the Daily Planet.
While Marks noted that Rhoades was one of the younger members of his staff, Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman quipped that the planning manager was likely to retire because of old age: “They say one year of working in Berkeley is like eight years any place else.”
Asked for a comment about Rhoades’ departure, Poschman would offered only that “It’s a bit poignant. Let’s leave it at that.”
Another Berkeley political veteran, former Mayor Shirley Dean, said simply, “I’m not going to comment. It’s been some years since I’ve worked with him, and I’ll leave the comments up to people with more recent experience.”
Steve Wollmer of PlanBerkeley.org and a neighbor of the so-called “Trader Joe’s project” at 1885 University Ave., a massive mixed-use project with apartments built over a grocery store, was less charitable.
“He changed the ground rules for development in Berkeley. He interpreted the Zoning Ordinance in new and original ways. He’s done so much damage to the city, and now he’s going to be on the other side,” Wollmer said. “Although his heart was probably in the right place, his head was on backwards.”
The 1885 University project is up for final consideration by the City Council Monday night, and Wollmer has raised the threat of a lawsuit if the building is approved as proposed by developers Evan McDonald and partner Chris Hudson.
Marks said Rhoades’ departure “will be a great loss to the City of Berkeley. The department is in much better shape than when he took over four years ago.”
Rhoades had played a major role in shaping the planning department and in bringing in new staff, Marks said. “He was a great guy to work with, and I’m going to miss him.”
An advocate of so-called Smart Growth projects that favor concentrating development in mixed-use projects that create higher-density housing over ground-floor retail spaces along commercial corridors, he had found himself frequently at odds with neighbors who saw the projects as threats to the character of their neighborhoods.
Will Travis, chair of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee, called Rhoades “the ultimate professional,” and said his resignation “will be a big loss to the city.”
Travis said he had always found Rhoades very helpful and constructive, and said much of the criticism came because “one of the challenges of working for the City of Berkeley is that there are a lot of policies, rules and regulations, and when Mark finds that a project meets all the policies, rules and regulations, he feels it should be approved.
“I think a lot of people in Berkeley” feel the policies, rules and regulations mean projects should not be approved, Travis said.
Sharon Hudson, who often found herself at odds with Rhoades, was less charitable, charging that the planner’s “arrogance, duplicity, and personal planning agenda cost the City of Berkeley and its citizens hundreds of thousands of dollars and untold misery every year.”
She said, “Under cover of public service, Mr. Rhoades skillfully manipulated the rules to benefit favored developers, and destroyed the trust between the citizens and their government. This is an opportunity for Dan Marks to honor his own good staff and the rest of Berkeley by replacing Mr. Rhoades with a public servant who respects the community, the truth, and the law.”
“He’s a true believer in smart growth, and he has hired many smart growth advocates at city hall,” said City Councilmember Dona Spring. “Their impact will reverberate for years to come. The question is: should a planning staff member be such a strong advocate for one aspect of development, one which is not shared by the impacted neighborhoods?”
Councilmember Gordon Wozniak offered a different perspective. “I will miss him. We’ll lose a lot of institutional knowledge.”
Wozniak described Rhoades as “a very good public servant who worked very hard. I’m very sorry to hear he’s leaving. I’m impressed by some of the younger planners, but Mark’s departure will leave a very big hole.
“It seems like a lot of people are leaving lately,” the councilmember added.
Marie Bowman said she’s glad to see the planner’s departure. “Hopefully the city will get someone who’s a good listener and doesn’t seek to impose his own personal philosophy. I’m not surprised to hear he’s talking to Ali Kashani.”
A veteran activist with the Berkeley Alliance of Neighborhood Associations, Bowman served on the city’s committee that studied the controversial density bonus awarded to developers in return for creating affordable apartments and condos. “We met for two years, then submitted our results. Mark was supposed to put it together, but instead he’s bottled it up. I suspect that’s because the developers won’t like it.”
Darrell de Tienne, a San Franciscan who often represents developers in shepherding their projects through the Berkeley bureaucracy, said he’d sometimes had disagreements with Rhoades.
As the representative for office builder and operator Wareham Development and the developers of the soon-to-be built nine-story-plus Berkeley Arpeggio condo tower on Center Street, de Tienne said many of the conflicts resulted from city policies.
“I hear he’s going over to the private sector, so now he’ll get to see what the other side is like for a while,” de Tienne said.
Rhoades didn’t return calls for comment.